The barbarian invaders had one thing the civilized Incas did not

Monday, January 14th, 2019

James LaFond praises the barbarians who took down the overly civilized Aztecs and Incas:

The Aztecs were besieged and in crisis, having lost their entire empire before the small pox killed 9 in 10 of them. So you are correct, this was not a win by disease but by deed. What did them in, primarily — and Barbara Tuchman in her March of Folly makes the best case for this — was their excessively civilized and fatalistic slave mind set, which had the entire nation acting in slavish obedience to a superstitious fool, Montezuma. As Bernal Diaz relates, their city was the greatest in the world surpassing any in Europe in all ways, from sanitation to food distribution to obedience to the law. All of this contributed to their fragility in the face of the Barbarian invaders, who fought over who was to be their leader up until the time of battle. Cortez usurped the leadership of the expedition.

Secondarily, the Aztecs had embarked on the folly of empire, enchaining slave races to their cruel will, races all too ready to ally in their hundreds of thousands with Cortez.

Now to the Incas, in which even fewer Aryan Barbarians took down an empire many times more powerful than the Aztecs. The Incas had bronze axes, maces and flails and stone weapons which defeated Spanish helmets. One Inca detachment even defeated a Spanish force in a fairly even battle. Again, the slave mind of a people whose king was a living god defeated the Incas, even as their vast army, which would have slaughtered the Aztecs and was organized much like the Roman Legions, stood obediently outside of the city where their fool leader and all of his officers agreed to meet unarmed with the 150-odd armed invaders. They never imagined that 150 armed men would kill all 20,000 of them [this in itself indicating a lack of heroic mindset] as their leaderless slave army watched from the surrounding hills. To their credit, the Incas, having already suffered heavy disease losses before the encounter through third-party contact, fought on for 40 years. However, their imperial system turned on them as the Spaniards used their road networks and stone fortress cities and recruited allies from their subject peoples. Agriculturally, the Incas were the most advanced civilization on earth at this time, but militarily they were barely into the Bronze Age. However, there have been studies done showing that they could have easily won and kept the Spaniards at bay while reverse engineering technology and using captive Spaniards as craftsmen much like the Japanese did hundreds of years later.

What really killed the Incas was that they had homogenized their people to a degree not seen until postmodern America, forcing tribes to give up their identity and moving them to alien places, enforcing communal food distribution, and finally softening to the point where they were unable to conquer the barbarian peoples to north, east and south. As with Rome before the Germans and Persia before the Macedonians, and then America before the drug cartels with its interstate system after, the centralized nature of the empire and the highly developed road network, blessed their invaders with godspeed.

But these incidences were only partially a lost defense and very much a gained conquest. The Barbarian invaders had one thing the Civilized Incas did not, a heroic ethos, which gave their enemies no rest as the Pizarro Brothers and the ruthless Soto descended on the faltering empire [already in the midst of a plague and a civil war] like wolves on sheep, which are what barbarians are to disorganized civilians.

Where Athaluppa sat stoically at Cajamarca and was burned to death in the very fire that melted down his sacred relics into bullion, even though he could have called in his armies to kill the invaders as he burned, not many years later we are related to an example of how Pizarro, his conqueror, behaved in the every same circumstance, when surrounded by Barbarian cutthroats. In the land of the Inca, not so far from where Athalupa died stoically as an ascendant Sun God, Pizarro and his assistant were attacked by five armored conquistadors while wearing only clothes and swords. While his secretary groveled, Pizarro cursed him and his assassins, tore a drape from the window as a shield, and well into his sixties, took some of his killers to hell with him.

What doomed the Incas is they were too civilized and this was permitted by an erasure of the heroic — if indeed they ever had a heroic ideal — from their martial culture. The heroic ideal did rise up [or reemerge] in the form of renegade Incas as a result of this cultural clash, but too little and too late.

The perfect counterpoint to these two civilizations being failed by their leaders and failing to rise up as a people, but remaining slaves to the alien invader to this day, is found in the Anabasis of Xenophon, or The March-down-to-the-sea. When the 10,000 leaderless Greek mercenaries sat by under orders while their leaders were murdered at a parley with the Persian army which vastly outnumbered them, the Greeks simply elected new leaders and fought their way free. Had the Inca army outside Cajamarca been made up of ancient Greeks the Spaniards would have been butchered that afternoon. It was the Anabasis which convinced Alexander that Persia was ripe for the picking.

The behavior of Conquistadors was that of independent rogue operators, often criminals in a state of disobedience to their government handlers, a shining half-century in masculine history when men reverted to the ancient Homeric ideals of heroism, cunning in the face of an alien foe and brutal natural selection among themselves to determine who was fit to lead the small barbarian pack in its descent on the soft, degenerate fold of Civilization, with its quivering neck bared to the ever-reoccurring cycle of cleansing barbarism that remains humanity’s last hope.

I highly recommend Bernal Diaz Del Castillo’s The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico, by the way. I’ve been meaning to read Xenophon’s Anabasis forever.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian Guest.)


  1. Harper’s Notes says:

    The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a 1969 movie, is excellent. .. Snip: “The Royal Hunt of the Sun is a 1969 British-American epic historical Drama film based on the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer. It stars Robert Shaw as Francisco Pizarro and Christopher Plummer as the Inca leader Atahualpa. Plummer appeared in stage versions of the play before appearing in the film, which was shot in Latin America and Spain. The film and play are based on the Spanish conquest of Peru by Pizarro in 1530.”

  2. Kirk says:

    Goes to my thesis that bureaucracy and hierarchy are the death of human success.

    Witness the effect of an overly hierarchical system when it encounters chaos personified in the form of a bunch of little clots of what amounted to modernized hunter-gatherer bands, which existed in a framework of higher order that provided them the tools of success.

    Chaos is something to be embraced; the plan is the first casualty, and if you don’t accept that fact and are ready to throw the plan out when reality fails to conform to your projections, well… You’re gonna have your ass handed to you.

    Although, I have to say that this narrative here is a bit, shall we say, one-sided? There were other issues in both Inca and Aztec culture that led to their failure in the face of a tiny band of relative primitives. The Inca, for example? There were huge amounts of social and economic power that were locked up in funerary BS the likes of which make the Egyptians look positively sane. There’s a couple of books on it, but basically, the dead continued to own property, and the living could not make use of it unless the priesthood agreed that the dead were OK with it… Which had huge swathes of the Incan economy locked into a straight-jacket.

    And, of course, you could make the argument that they didn’t have a market economy the way we understand one. In any event, the fact that epidemics killed something like 90% of the population immediately before and during their initial encounters with the Spanish leaves a lot of room for questioning what would have happened had that encounter happened without all that death. You watch 90% of your civilization die, and the survivors aren’t going to be at their best, when it comes to encountering out-of-context things like the Conquistadores.

  3. Magus says:

    Aztecs were probably less advanced than the 2.3k bc Akkadian civ. Of course we trounced them.

  4. Kirk says:

    I’m not quite certain that “advanced” means what you think it does… At the time of Cortes, the urban complex that was Tenochtitlan was bigger and more sanitary than most of the urban areas run by the Europeans at the time.

    In some ways, I think it might be argued that the New World was more sophisticated than the Old was. Certainly, life was better for the average Incan peasant than it was for the average serf in Russia or most of Western Europe–Under Incan policy, if you allowed your peasants to starve, you were in a world of trouble. The Incan state was totalitarian, and a lot more organized than many European ones were, and they did it without many of the institutional tools we used. So, who was more sophisticated…?

    It would have been very interesting to see what happened, were the Incan or Aztec empires to have faced the Spanish without the crippling effects of pandemic disease. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that Cortes and Pizarro would be apocryphal footnotes that described them getting wiped out to the last man.

  5. Bruce says:

    “While his secretary grovelled, Pizarro cursed them and —“

    You know you are tough when Robert E Howard uses your last fight twice, ‘The Phoenix and the Sword’ and The Hour of the Dragon.

    When you read Bernardo Diaz or Cortez’ letters, you get a strong feeling that Cortez knew exactly what he was dealing with- scattered city states held together by military juntas, politically important religions, brotherhoods of soldiers, he’d grown up in the Empire of Spain and he knew it in his bones like we never will.

  6. Jacob G. says:

    Relevant for epidemic toll on Mexico: The Epidemic of 1545–1548 was the most deadly disease outbreak in the world during the 16th century.

    Certainly the conquest would have been reversed if the rising generation, accustomed to the Spanish, horses and guns hadn’t been decimated by the Cocolitzli epidemic.

  7. Lu An Li says:

    Their own prophecies and superstition did in the Aztec too. Cortez represented the return of an ancient god and this heralded the end of the world as understood at the time. It WAS ALL SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN!

  8. Kirk says:

    One of the things that’s also left out of the calculations: The Aztecs and the Inca were both extremely fatalistic cultures; to a degree that we just don’t grasp. In our context, you start thinking that God’s got it in for you, and you can’t think of a reason why, well… The usual response is to throw your fist up, and say “Screw you, God!! I’m gonna be an atheist…”, or something along those lines.

    A lot of the survivors of the epidemics took everything as being the will of their various gods, and that they’d somehow failed those gods, which meant that the bad things (Spaniards with horses, guns, and big dogs…) happening to them were both deserved and the will of the gods. Quite a few of them just laid down and died, more-or-less willing themselves to death via apathy.

    Fatalism is a human vice that we here in the West tend to discount, but it’s a real part of the human phenomenon in other cultures.

  9. Jim says:

    Magus and Kirk – Magus is correct here. New World Civilizations while extremely interesting were simply not at the level of contemporary European civilizations. Indeed even comparing them to Akkadians who had extensive use of writing, metallurgy, market economies, etc. is not really appropriate.

    The migration to the New World seems to have filtered out most infectious diseases so Amerindians before Columbus were probably much more disease free than Eurasians. While no doubt life was better for them because of that it also meant that they were highly vulnerable to the many new diseases brought by Europeans.

    It was not only the Aztecs and Incas who were quickly conquered by Europeans. The whole conquest of Latin America was over very quickly.

  10. Alistair says:


    I agree with you and Magnus, and think Kirk is a little bit off on his assessment of advanced.

    New World civilisations were in many ways shockingly primitive despite the scale of the cities; not just the science and engineering, but social organisation and administration, as well as art and culture.

    I once did a rough tech and engineering comparison between Aztec / Inca tech and its development in the old world. Best I could tell the Aztecs were at about ~2,000BC, iirc (they had some tech originating later, but also failed to have some techs which came sooner, notably the wheel).

  11. Graham says:

    There’s a need for a degree of humility in assessing any competing civilizations, especially since disease whose mechanism was unknown to Europeans basically gave them the New World for their empires. In it’s absence, the neolithic empires of Mexico and Peru probably had the numbers to swamp any early invasion and the organizational capacity to rally to do so. Even the farmer and HG tribes of eastern North America probably could.

    And the survivors demonstrated the ability to adapt to metal weapons and firearms well enough. Given functioning societies pre-plague, they may or may not have figured out how to make some. Hard to tell. The gunsmiths of the Khyber pass have always been on the fringes of far more advanced societies, but the skills can be practiced in limited circumstances.

    How well it would have gone, I can’t say. But it was quite some time before Europeans were sending people over in serious numbers- whether they would have tried in these new conditions is tough to call.

    OTOH, in assessing technology that’s relevant here, it isn’t just metal armour, weapons and firearms. It’s- can you build an ocean-going ship and design navigational instruments that enable you to cross an empty ocean on a speculative expedition? There’s a huge weight of technological, scientific, and even philosophical background there.

  12. Kirk says:

    The point that I’m making is that it’s dangerous to write off the Inca and Aztec as “primitive and unsophisticated”. The Inca totalitarian state was something the likes of which no Western nation has ever managed to accomplish without crashing and burning as their economy self-destructed. We’ve never managed even something small, like the various utopian socialist communities of the 19th Century.

    And, the Inca did that without any form of alphabet. The Maya had astronomy and calendars that were arguably in advance of what the Europeans had, and achieved it while most of Europe was still huddling in the dark.

    What I’m getting at is that the sophistication of a civilization isn’t just measured by how many heavily armed men it may be able to send off to rape, pillage, and burn–It’s about a bunch of other features. Agriculture in the Amazon was amazingly sophisticated–We still have trouble replicating the loma prieta soils that they were able to produce, turning jungle into productive agricultural lands. And, that entire civilization in the Amazon basin collapsed under the weight and impact of the diseases brought by the Europeans, to the point that it’s only now that we’re beginning to take the initial reports of the Spanish explorers seriously.

    My take on it all is that one should remain humble, and not start out from a position of arrogantly assuming that everything that is one’s own is superior; yes, the Europeans came out on top in the recent past, but the honest truth is, our modern civilization that we’re so proud of hasn’t lasted as long as some of the ones we’ve so proudly disdained to even acknowledge–Look at the classic age of Angkor Wat, and marvel at the accomplishments of that civilization over the course of centuries. Compare the length of time they managed to last, and compare that to how we’re doing.

    I’m not sure that the modern West is really on a sustainable path, in a lot of respects. The rapidity with which we’ve lost cultural and civilizational confidence in some areas is frightening; the damage we’ve managed to do to aspects of the environment that don’t get much attention is astounding; take a look at the hints of insect populations crashing, and try to consider the implications of that. The Maya self-destructed via their own success in their environment, and were unable to cope with cyclic drought. What issues await us?

    All I’m saying is, stay humble. Hell, humanity itself ain’t managed to do half as well as the dinosaurs did, although we are well on our way (fingers crossed…) to being able to stave off the occasional asteroid strike…

  13. Jacob G. says:

    It is instructive to look at what Diaz and Albuquerque did in the Indian Ocean at the same time.

    Their technological edge was slight — perhaps no more than a general theory of how the oceans worked. The disease gradient worked the other way. Yet the Hidalgos still generally won battles against enormous odds and imposed their will on the more populous natives. Very few would argue that these places were backwards by thousands of years.

    So LaFond’s theory that they had a feral wolfpack mentality is as plausible an explanation of the Hidalgos’ lopsided victories as anything. Disease then being the main factor between toppling the country and building a new one in its place versus imposing rents for a while.

  14. Bruce says:

    In the Indian Ocean, the Egyptian Navy was bigger than the other Moslem fleets, but Egypt was a province of the Turkish Empire and the Turks weren’t about to let Egypt tool up enough to challenge the Turks. Also, the toughest Moslem warships were flamethrower ships, able to roast any ship point-blank, but suicidal to be on when Portugese cannon opened the fuel tank from a distance.

  15. Kirk says:

    The performance of the Spaniards, Portuguese, and other Europeans against the rest of the world is a point a lot of the folks who decry the “primitive” nature of their opponents in the Americas manage to overlook. Yeah, the Aztec and Inca were horribly behind the times, in weapons and tactics, but… It’s not like the massively more “advanced” civilizations of the South Eurasian landmass did much better.

    Europe was just a better competitor. Reasons for that can be speculated on all you like, but it was a world-wide phenomenon. Hell, up until lately, the rest of the world simply didn’t have their acts together, to put it bluntly.

    One does wonder what might have transpired, had those Euros of the recent past run into anything truly out of context, like some aliens arriving from outside the solar system. How would they have coped, with that…? Would they have been Japan to the alien’s Perry…?

    It’s really hard to imagine Cortes doing a roll-up-and-die thing, or any of his peers. I think it’s entirely possible that they’d have rolled the aliens the way they did the Indians and (eventually…) the Chinese.

  16. Isegoria says:

    Your comment about Europeans and aliens, Kirk, reminds me of Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade — which I haven’t read (yet), but have read about:

    England 1345, and Sir Roger de Tourneville has volunteered to help King Edward III in his war against the French. The English army, fully prepped on the eve of leaving, crushes a small alien invasion force, by dint of cunning, superior numbers, and having no EMP-susceptible equipment or depletable bullets/explosives/laser charges — but plenty of reusable arrows, swords, sheer brute strength and a sense of righteous Christian indignation.

    Using the captured spaceship and the grudging assistance of a surviving alien interpreter (taught Latin by a local cleric), they launch a counter-invasion of the evil intergalactic empire, whom they view as the more prolific, Heaven-soiling brethren of the infidels overrunning the Holy Land. Because the invaders to our world have been dominant for so long over such a wide area, nobody up in the stars has any damn idea what politics are any more. Sir Roger, a man who’s managed to survive medieval European politics quite well for some time, knows exactly what politics are, and manages to convince every single alien he meets, through bravado, underhandedness, trickery, and good old-fashioned lying, to assail their opponents. The only downside to their situation is that unfortunately the humans — not being astrogators, among other reasons — have no idea where Earth is any more.

  17. Graham says:

    There was a period in the 70s-90s when military SF seemed often to turn to the theme of the military effectiveness of humans compared to aliens, even when less advanced.

    (James?) Barton had one in which an occupied Earth furnished mercenaries. There was another series in which Earth might have been a member of some alliance but all the other species were terrified of our propensity for violence and so used humans as their army against some new external threat. IIRC, the birdlike alien species among our allies tended to be instantly paralyzed by the merest suggestion of violence.

    But the idea of really primitive humans taking names out in space probably does get its best expression in The High Crusade. The other example I can think of would be Ranks of Bronze by David Drake. Drake also wrote a book called Birds of Prey in which a Roman frumentarius agent is called on to investigate mysterious happenings that involve alien incursions. He and his empire proved, I think, surprisingly up to the challenge.

    I have this pet theory that humans from polytheistic and even monotheistic societies would have been better, until recently, than moderns at accepting alien beings. I mean, recognizing their existence not necessarily agreeing to live in peace with them. These societies had frameworks they could use, even if it meant inaccurately classifying the aliens as demons, gods, angels, or sprites or faeries or what have you.

    The Enlightenment put us on a path toward being eventually able to classify any potential aliens more accurately than that as just other bio lifeforms, but it also created a couple of centuries during which our collective capacity to consider the existence of aliens and our potential psychic resistance to the blow of such things existing was likely at an all time low. Thus the common postwar idea that the result would be mass panic, and the fairly decent chance that that actually would have been the result.

    We seem now to be at a new tipping point, in which media has not only started to inure the human psyche to the existence of aliens, but might actually be conditioning us to panic if we never find any aliens. A lot of people really seem to think the world of aliens seen in Star Trek or similar shows is already true and waiting for us out there.

    Hopefully, should any show up, we will manage a measured response between panic/nuke the landing site, and “they must be our friends because how could they be so advanced and not be our peaceful moral teachers?”

  18. Kirk says:

    Isegoria, I was actually thinking about that novel when I said that. I’m not sure that such a situation would play out the way Anderson had it, but… I do suspect that the Conquistadores would have managed something a lot closer to Japan’s outcome, when it came to dealing with the outsider than what went on with most of the rest of the world.

    Japan’s experience ought to be taken seriously as a model for how to deal with superior outside-context civilizations forcing their way in. Had the Japanese not gone off the rails post-WWI, odds are that they’d have done a lot better than they did, in terms of maintaining their original culture. As it was, Japan invited the breaking of it all, and they’re now a lot less “Japanese” than they would have been. For a given value… One does wonder what Japan would look like absent the militarism and the disasters it created in foreign relations. Had they taken a route of trying to serve as intermediaries between China and the West, vs. becoming the exploiters themselves…?

    There has always been a decidedly out-of-control militarism to Japanese culture, however. Not too sure how all that would have played out… There were the various interactions with the Mongols, the Korean adventures of the 1500s, and all the rest. Japan with some common sense and a bit of humility is an interesting concept to explore… Just like the “what if…” of, say, the Arabs making common cause with their fellow Semites, and actually working with the Jews of Israel. You wonder what the world would look like, with Israeli technology married to Arab money, and it’s an interesting question. God knows, the Arabs would be a hell of a lot better off, and the Iranians would probably be less of a worry.

  19. Kirk says:


    The question is really going to come down to a lot of things we just don’t know enough about, as of yet. It may be that the forces of convergent evolution act everywhere, and any life form evolving intelligence is thus probably going to look and behave a lot like we do, or maybe not. No evidence exists, so who knows?

    My guess is that there isn’t a lot of intelligent life out there, for whatever reason. You would think that we’d see some evidence for it, via observable stellar-sized mega-projects that ought to be visible from here, but… None so far. Or, we are sufficiently different from those alien intelligences that we just haven’t been looking in the right places.

    I don’t know which is the more frightening idea, to be more honest–That we’re pretty much all alone, or that we’re so different from the usual run of intelligent life that we’ve managed to miss all the evidence. I suppose the other option is that everybody manages to kill themselves before becoming truly interstellar, and that’s actually one of my darker suspicions, when you look at everything.

  20. Isegoria says:

    Great minds, Kirk. Great minds.

    Japan’s rapid modernization is truly amazing, by the way.

  21. Graham says:


    I think those are the big questions and you’re right, we have little evidence. What we have is filtered through our own shifting assumptions.

    XKCD, which I mostly gave up on some years ago in what I would call a divergent sensibility moment, had a good cartoon once in which a character comments about the Fermi paradox:

    The idea the ecosystem is spectacularly dangerous and we need to camouflage is one option. It might be a little paranoid but I wonder if it was considered when we sent out probes with a lot of information on gold records.

    You raise another: we are so different from most life we don’t see it. Interesting if we are the only case of our kind of life.

    A variant would be the scenario in which we are just far behind everyone else in this neighbourhood, or for that matter far ahead.

    Or they all kill one another and we might too, or someone kills them at intervals. Or something does.

    Or maybe intelligent life is just that rare.

    All these possibilities come with hopes and fears. Which one would cause the most shock to current human expectations, that’s what seems to vary over time.

  22. Kirk says:

    That XKCD cartoon is pithy and to the point; I’m not sure I’ve seen that one before you highlighted it.

    On the flip side, though…? I really doubt that anyone is ever going to see that plaque on the side of Voyager. What’s far more likely to happen to that thing is that some human is going to catch up to it, steal it, and then try to sell it as memorabilia of the early space age…

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